I’ve been going to Greece every two to three years since 2001. I was in Greece in the European summer of 2004 when the city of Athens dazzled like a block of white marble in the sun. I was also there in 2013 and 2015 when I was shocked by the number of unemployed people, shops, factories and businesses closed, and people generally doing it tough. I’ve written about my observations of how Greece and Greek people were faring in the global financial crisis in both 2013 and 2015. On my return to Greece in October this year, I was eager to see what state I would find the country and its people in.
As the title of this post points out, I am keenly aware that I can only offer an outsider’s view. But, because I visit only every couple of years, I notice those changes that for locals have occurred so painfully slowly that they are missed. It’s like how you notice how much a child has grown if you don’t see them for two years, whereas those closest to the child, who see them every day, don’t realise how much the child has grown from year to year.
Things between 2013 and 2015 had quite visibly declined. There were more people out of jobs, more shops closed, and more homeless people in the streets. Back in 2013 the economic crisis was all people talked about. It was everywhere. Four years later nobody talks about it. Partially that’s due to crisis fatigue, but mostly it seems to me that people have accepted the severe changes that the GFC, and specifically Greece’s economic situation, has wrought on their lives. By ‘accepted’ I mean in the way that you go through all stages of grieving and eventually ‘accept’ the death of a loved one.
Of course, when prompted, people do talk about it. And being Greek everyone has a pretty strong opinion. I asked family and friends about how they saw the economy now and its impact on their life. Nearly everyone told me things had gotten worse since I’d last visited.
But that wasn’t what I saw.
I saw that there weren’t more shops closed this time – neither in the main retail centres of Thessaloniki and Athens, nor in the neighbourhood shopping strips I visited. If anything, there was an ever so slight increase in shops open for business. Just one or two extra shops open in each strip or high street.
I even personally came across a small commercial success story. One of the newest shops in Athens Airport is Anamnesia, an absolutely delightful gift and souvenir shop. They sell practical and fun gifts that centre thematically on typical elements of Greek life, traditions and mythology. Their designs are modern and full of good humour. Everything they sell is not only designed in Greece, it’s made in Greece.
After the success of their first store on the Greek island of Zakinthos, which opened in June last year, they expanded the business and now have another shop on the island of Mykonos, as well as a shop in the Plaka district of Athens and the Athens Airport shop which is open 24 hours a day. So this is a business created just over a year ago that has grown, employing not only more retail staff, but more staff in the manufacturing of their products.
And that was another thing I noticed. I heard a few stories about people getting some work after being unemployed for over two or three years, or changing jobs to improve their situation. I’m not saying they were getting their ideal job or that they had many options, but two years ago you didn’t hear about people finding employment at all.
I also noticed a bit more advertising in public spaces, like on the subway in Athens. Okay, sure, there weren’t ads plastered everywhere as there had been in the 2000s, but neither was every space and every billboard bare, as they were in 2013 and 2015. More spending on advertising means retailers are regaining confidence that people will spend. Another small sign of positive change.
All this anecdotal evidence is supported statistically by Greece’s current unemployment and youth unemployment rates, both of which are at six-year lows (about 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively). Which is not to say that they’re not still high, but relative to the worst years of the crisis (when, for example, youth unemployment was at 60 per cent), things are ever so slightly on the up. Growth in GDP is also trending upwards and the forecast is that it will continue to grow. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.
Tourism is a big part of Greece’s economy and the indicators there are also positive. Both tourism revenue and arrivals are increasing. Greece is in the top 10 countries in the world for tourism arrivals and in the top 20 for tourism revenue. More tourists spending more money is good for the Greek economy. It certainly explains why a shop like Anamnesia, that offers high quality, original products, is flourishing.
This is not to say that everything is rosy in Greece. One of the reasons that people still feel angry and frustrated is because the austerity measures that have directly impacted on them – the increase in taxes and the reduction in superannuation, pension and welfare payments – is not translating yet into visible benefits for the country. Usually these things go towards things like public hospitals, roads, schools, etc. That’s not happening in Greece. Yet. But it will come eventually.
I spent a month in Greece and didn’t see or hear anything that made me pessimistic about its future. At first I thought things had simply plateaued, but by the end of the month I felt optimistic that things were starting to turn towards the better for Greece. Even if they’re just baby steps, they’re still steps forward. And to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, all these small steps for individual Greek people will eventually add up to one giant leap for their country.